The latest issue in an already contentious Houston mayoral contest is a new lawsuit alleging Mayor Sylvester Turner and members of the city council are not properly managing voter-approved drainage and street funds.
Filed by Houston-area civil engineers James “Bob” Robert Jones and Allen Watson, the suit alleges city leaders are not abiding by the specifics of a charter amendment overwhelmingly passed by voters in 2018.
“Proposition A” passed with more than 74 percent last year and was intended to establish a protected “Dedicated Drainage and Street Renewal Fund (DDSRF). Ballot language identified four revenue sources specifically designated for the DDSRF, one of those being $0.118 of the city’s ad valorem tax levy, now at the heart of the new lawsuit.
The suit filed last Monday alleges that Houston’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget ignores the 2018 Prop A language by illegally diverting funds. While plaintiffs calculate that $0.118 of assessed property tax value should result in more than $91 million for DDSRF next year, the city budget only allocates $47 million from ad valorem revenues.
“According to the 2020 budget, the City is short-changing the DDSRF by nearly half,” said plaintiff Allen Watson.
Jones and Watson argue that if the current fund diversion continues, the total funding loss to DDSRF could exceed $500 million over the next ten years.
Jones and Watson have a long history of work on local infrastructure issues and both supported Prop A as well as a similar voter-approved measure in 2010.
Jones served 12 years on the Harris-Galveston Coastal Subsidence Board of Directors and in 2002 was appointed by Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff to the Texas Building and Procurement Commission. He has contributed to updating Houston drainage guidelines for decades and has long advocated for dedicated city funding for drainage projects.
Watson’s clients have included the cities of Houston and Austin, and Harris, Williamson, and Hays counties.
Former Mayor Annise Parker appointed Watson to the METRO Board of Directors where he served until 2015.
In a press release, Jones said, “We are undertaking this suit to ensure that the law is upheld, that the promised funding is protected so that our infrastructure receives the investment necessary to repair, replace and upgrade our street and drainage systems throughout the city over the next 20-30 years.”
Prop A was intended to remedy problems with the measure, Proposition 1, approved by voters in 2010.
In response to legal challenges, the Texas Supreme Court invalidated the 2010 amendment due to vague ballot language. The city then passed an ordinance that kept the fees and designated revenues for drainage and street projects. The program has continued to operate since 2010, undergoing frequent name changes from ReNew Houston, to ReBuild Houston, to now Build Houston Forward.
During the run-up to the 2018 vote, Mayor Turner said the previous version allowed for diversions, but assured voters that passing the revised Prop A measure would create a “lockbox” to prevent future diversion of drainage and street project monies to the city’s general fund.
But Houston mayoral candidate Bill King had warned voters against supporting Prop A last year, since he said the amendment amounted to a “lockbox with no top on it.”
“I hate to keep being the ‘I told you so guy,” King told The Texan.
King has repeatedly referred to the city’s problematic management of drainage funds, noting that this isn’t the first year that half of the drainage fees have gone elsewhere.
Over the past five years, the city has diverted approximately $200 million; an amount King says the city could have used to completely rebuild 200 lane miles of Houston-area roads.
King explained that the mayor and city leaders are playing games with Prop A language which refers to an amount “equivalent to” $0.118 of the ad valorem revenue. Instead of strictly defining DDSRF allocations as being equal to $0.118, the city is using a convoluted formula to reduce the totals based on Houston’s property tax cap.
“My job as mayor will be to give full intent on what the voters intended and not engage in these contorted interpretations to shift funds.”
In a statement to the Houston Chronicle, which just recently endorsed Turner for reelection, Turner’s office responded to the lawsuit not by denying the continued diversion of funds dedicated to DDSRF, but by stating that giving the full $0.118 of revenue to designated drainage and street projects would “cripple” city services.
Attorney Tony Buzbee, another Houston mayoral candidate, released a statement saying, “Turner has worked to redefine what drainage means so that he can spend the money as he pleases.”
Referring to an alleged reallocation of employee funding, Buzbee added, “Transferring Public Works staff to the DDSRF payroll is not a drainage project. Once again Mayor Turner has done everything in his power to convolute the will of the voters to fit his personal agenda.”
Noting that the lawsuit also names all members of the city council, Greg Meyers, who is running for City Council District C, said: “this just once again points out that city revenue is not being spent on critical infrastructure issues.”
Regardless of the outcomes of the mayoral and city council elections next month, the Jones and Watson lawsuit includes a request for a permanent injunction against the city’s diversion of the $0.118 in ad valorem property tax revenues.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.